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Russia launched a campaign to discredit Western vaccines against coronavirus

Russian news outlets are trying to convince Spanish-speaking countries that the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V is performing better than its American competitors Pfizer and Moderna.

Reported by the New York Times.

Russian company in Latin America

The Russian campaign focused on Latin American countries. There, the media posted hundreds of news links on Facebook and Twitter suggesting that American vaccines may have played a role in the deaths. They did not include reports that showed that vaccines most likely did not play any role in deaths.

For example, on January 17, Russia Today Espanol wrote that Norway is going to find out why 23 elderly people have died after being vaccinated by Pfizer. Three weeks ago, the same account posted several reports of six people who died during the Pfizer vaccine trial.

There were similar stories on Facebook accounts. On January 5, the Spanish-language Russia Today Facebook page shared a story with its 17 million subscribers, claiming that a Portuguese nurse had died two days after being vaccinated by Pfizer. The story implies that the vaccine is to blame, although doctors and the autopsy concluded that the vaccine probably played no role in her death.

“It was a coordinated effort that was part PR campaign and part disinformation. This is one of the largest operations we have seen to promote vaccine narrative in Latin America, and it seems to have had an effect. Russia was relentlessly creating a narrative that grew and to some extent accepted, “said First Draft disinformation researcher Jaime Longoria.

The first surge in activity was noticed by US intelligence officials in August 2020, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had agreed to create a vaccine.

The Spanish-language Twitter and Facebook accounts of the two state-owned media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik are regularly among the most influential in Latin America. It is in these accounts that they mainly talk about vaccines.

“They have amassed a large audience and regularly rank in the top ten stories or links,” Longoria said.

This propaganda has borne fruit. Mexico's deputy health minister, Hugo Lopez-Gatel, said his government had signed a contract to supply the Russian vaccine for 24 million doses that will reach 12 million people. The vaccine will be delivered in several stages until May.

Perhaps pushed to Mexico's decision is the results of an independent review of Sputnik V, showing that it has a 91.6% effectiveness and has no serious side effects. They appeared in the medical journal The Lancet.

Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V

Interestingly, earlier Russian efforts were focused on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. She was portrayed as dangerous. It was speculated on social media that the vaccine would turn humans into monkeys because it was developed using the chimpanzee virus.

But the campaign ended abruptly after drug manufacturers announced that the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had reached an agreement to jointly test a combination of their vaccines.

“You can see a distinct tipping point where stories about AstraZeneca suddenly go from completely negative to completely positive. It is clear that as business interests changed, so did the goals of their influence operation,” Longoria said.

Facebook's reaction to Russian activity

In December, Facebook said it had removed a Russian disinformation campaign that published information in French, English, Portuguese, and Arabic. They also wrote about the Russian vaccine.

“We know that influence operations take many forms, including open communications through state-controlled media. We put clear labels on these publishers so people know who the information is coming from,” said Facebook spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois.

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